Of the authors destined to share a bookshelf with Judy Blume, Adam Meyer was perhaps the least likely. When he completed The Last Domino, an ultraviolent book inspired by the Columbine shootings, the 33-year-old America’s Most Wanted–intern– turned– novelist never imagined that his story could be aimed at adolescents.
“I envisioned a book about a teenager, for adults,” the Silver Spring author says. Meyer was initially hesitant when his agent suggested recasting the narrative for the 13- to 18-year-old set. “I thought it was awfully dark, but publishers were interested.” The book was published by Putnam Juvenile this year.
Putnam’s enthusiasm for The Last Domino speaks to Meyer’s ability to explain school violence by focusing on its darkest possible causes. His book follows high-school junior Travis Ellroy as he lashes out against vicious bullies, his unsupportive parents, and the girl who rejects him. In the eyes of zero-tolerance policy-makers and media pundits—including Meyer’s mentor John Walsh, host of AMW—kids with guns are criminals, not victims. But Domino is a sympathetic portrait of Travis: a tangle of social and sexual confusion who is pushed over the edge by the same “lack of communication” that Meyer thinks is typical in the real world.
“When I read the coverage of Columbine and similar incidents, the ‘why’ was always lacking,” he says. “There’s so many chances to see [Travis’] problems….His parents miss them, his guidance counselor misses them, his teachers miss them.”
Besides looking to Columbine, Meyer found inspiration in Stephen King’s early novella Rage and breakout novel, Carrie, both of which feature persecuted teens wreaking havoc at their schools. And the surname of his protagonist is a nod to James Ellroy’s strong influence on Meyer’s relentless prose style, evident in lines such as “He fell back, blood jetting out of his throat” and “His lips moved too quick, as though he was trying to spit out a lifetime of prayers in a few seconds.”
Though such scenes in a book for adolescents might seem gratuitous—at one point, a character holds a gun to his sleeping mother’s head, and the bloody final act reads more like American Psycho than Forever—Meyer contends that they’re simply nothing new.
“We are all living in a post-9/11 world,” Meyer says. “[Violence] is the reality of people’s lives now.”
But the modern teenage mind proved less familiar to Meyer. Having come of age in the ’80s, he faced the challenge of learning to think like a kid of the aughts.
“The first draft was a bit of an adult trying to sound like a teenager,” Meyer says. In a process he compares to method acting, Meyer used his own conversations with college students to define the emotional borders of Travis’ world and a slang dictionary to shape its language. Looking back into his own past also helped. “I could go back to my journals and revisit high school,” he says. “I was amazed by the level of passion of those years. For Travis, every bad thing is a crisis, every good thing is a miracle.”
“There’s a certain amount of Travis in me,” he admits, laughing, “but I had a great time in high school.” —Justin Moyer